Law and Equity in a Medieval English Manor Court
John Witte, Jr., Sara McDougall, and Anna di Robilant, eds., Texts and Contexts in Legal History: Essays in Honor of Charles Donahue (Berkeley, CA: Robbins Collection, 2016), 257-275.
21 Pages Posted: 27 Jan 2017
Date Written: 2016
Through a close textual reading and contextual analysis of a short series of early fourteenth-century manorial court roll entries, this paper draws larger conclusions about the interplay between law and equity in a medieval English manor court. It follows a narrative thread focused on a single tenement, which was forfeited by a villein in 1317 due to his fugitive status. The forfeiture was described as permanent in the Great Horwood court roll, and the tenement was transferred by the lord to a new tenant immediately. However, over a decade later the villein’s widow successfully claimed dower in the tenement, and shortly thereafter her son succeeded in regaining the family’s possession of the purportedly forfeited land. The paper reveals the presence of competing interests among various members of the Great Horwood community; the selective marshaling of written evidence, manorial custom, and common law rules; and the exercise of equitable discretion in selecting the “rightful” tenant, possibly guided by extra-legal factors, such as the exigencies of famine. The paper also makes a methodological claim, arguing that a combined textual and contextual analysis of fragmentary evidence can reveal insights that might not come to light through other analytical approaches.
Keywords: Medieval England, manor court, equity, customary law
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